Nursery Equipment: Dens - My space

Diana Lawton
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Whether they are fashioned from hedgerows or built for purpose from tents and playhouses, dens should be personal retreats for children and places that inspire their imagination and learning, says Diana Lawton.

It could be a curtain draped over a table, or a hole in a hedge. Whatever form the den takes, finding and creating secret places and hiding away is a common schematic interest. In very young children, this presents itself by crawling inside boxes and behind chairs, or hiding under a blanket.

At this stage a child needs to be near a familiar adult and close to a safe place. As children grow and develop, they search out opportunities to find and create spaces sufficiently away from adults. Dens become more important and sophisticated if opportunities are provided.

Research supports the thinking that dens are crucial to a child's development, but suggests that they are in danger of disappearing as a childhood experience, due to lack of access to natural areas, parental fears about letting children out alone and the lure of computer games and television.


Dens can provide children with the opportunity to explore safely and independently, solve problems and build confidence. In a world controlled by adults, a child can feel a sense of control over the physical space, and enjoyment and challenge in the process. Working outside in this way provides healthy exercise, putting children in touch with the natural world.

It is about playing creatively, making friends, collaborating, and learning through doing in a very real sense. Children can be excited, energetic, adventurous, noisy and messy. Ideas of size, shape, space and measure are embedded in concrete experiences. Children challenge themselves physically and mentally, make their own rules and reinforce a sense of self.

Children will bring their own experiences and interests to den play. This could involve role play; for example, a rabbit in its burrow or a recent caravan holiday. They may simply enjoy the feeling of being enclosed, experiencing 'inside' with their whole bodies.

A den can be a place to be alone, away from adults - a secret place of retreat. Small spaces encourage talk and imaginative dialogue. Dens can be a place to share with a friend, a space for special games, somewhere to chat and listen.

Other schematic interests can be embraced. Special treasures may be transported and stored in the den, while connectors can refine skills; ideas about horizontality and verticality will be reinforced as structures take shape.

Children will express ideas and feelings as they create, invent, construct and deconstruct.


When planning provision for den play, ask yourself:

- Are there natural areas that lend themselves to secret places?

- What resources are available for children to create their own dens?

- What permanent features can be provided?

Natural spaces

Children will be drawn towards areas of trees, bushes and hedges, so if you have them, incorporate them into the play environment. These areas require little in the way of additions. Adults need to do a daily health and safety check, but then children should be allowed ownership of the space.

If a good selection of open-ended materials are available as part of outside provision, children will be able to draw on these if and when they wish to. Using whatever comes to hand involves resourcefulness and develops problem-solving skills. Leaves can become plates; twigs food; and grass cuttings a soft bed.

If this kind of natural provision is unavailable, then look at how it might be created. Could a space be planted up to provide shrubs, paths and small trees? Can a corner be created using shrubs and plants in containers?

Willow structures

Living dens using willow are popular. Seek advice initially to ensure that the ground is prepared properly and that the structure is woven securely. However, once established, little maintenance is required.

There are lots of possibilities to create domes, wigwams, arbours, arches, screens and tunnels to crawl through. Willow can be bought for planting from November to the beginning of March in the form of cuttings, specific kits, or as living whips with which to create your designs and structures.

Check out local suppliers and see 'Further information' for specialists.

Commercial and fixed structures

Ready-made and commercially produced sheds and playhouses offer a more permanent space for children to use on a daily basis, and so also deserve consideration. Such spaces can be used whatever the weather, are instantly available to support imaginative role play, and provide secret spaces for children who have not yet reached the stage of building dens, or who are not physically able to do so.

Playhouses are available through specialist catalogues, or a local joiner could make one to meet the specific needs of your settings. Choose one that is as basic as possible, to enable children to bring their own ideas to the play, and different to the indoor role-play areas. Quite often, inside areas are beautifully furnished, well stocked and arranged by adults, leaving nothing to the child's imagination. Left as a blank canvas, the outside spaces can become whatever the children need at the time. They can, for instance, get props from the natural environment.

Tents and teepees

Tents are inexpensive, and can be quick and easy to erect and dismantle. If space and funds allow, position a couple and leave empty for children to use as they choose. Teepees can be bought, but are also easy to create using canes and drapes or tarpaulin.

A tent makes a cosy book den, with cushions and a selection of fiction and non-fiction books linked to outside interests. Positioned close to a wild area, a tent can become an observation base for the watching of birds and other wildlife. Add binoculars, clipboard, non-fiction books and a camera. In the wildlife area, fasten a nesting box and provide a selection of bird treats and bird bath.


It is important that settings provide resources for children to make their own dens. Children will use whatever they can get their hands on to build their own spaces, inside and out. Providing a variety of found materials encourages and supports this exciting play, enabling children to develop across all areas of the curriculum.

Having the opportunity to build their own dens also allows children the experience of dismantling and changing the structure. These are important aspects of the learning and understanding process.

When planning your den-building resources, ask yourself:

- What will children need to create enclosures?

- What can be provided to envelop roofs and cover floor spaces?

- What is available for fastening and connecting?

Useful den-building resources are:

- crates, planks, logs, cardboard boxes and clothes airers

- a set of large hollow blocks and planks - good basic provision and a good investment

- a selection of drapes for screening and covering roofs. Different lengths, patterns and textures increase the learning opportunities

- carpet squares, rugs and off-cuts - good for filling in floor spaces, necessitating estimation and problem-solving skills

- a variety of other shapes and forms to offer ideas and challenges - cones, tyres, empty cable reels and the inner cylinders of carpet rolls will all feed the imagination - and,

- fasteners such as pegs, large bulldog clips, string, rope and tape.

Props to support play

Have available a supply of telephones; pots, pans, tea sets, kitchen utensils; cushions and pillows; tools; picnic baskets, bags, sacks, cases; and camping equipment and torches.


Community Playthings supplies large hollow blocks (

Mindstretchers has a selection of resources that can be used in den-building, including Velcro straps, arch frames, waterproof sheets, cameo nets and a den-building kit (

Local joiners may be happy to create basic children's sheds to specific requirements

B&Q sells playhouses including the Command Post Playhouse, priced £319 (


Tents and dens are a major feature of children's play at Halesfield Day Nursery in Telford. Occasionally, staff bring in special tents for the children to enjoy bird-watching from the seclusion of a camouflaged environment, and storytelling in a wigwam. Available daily are four little pop-up tents and lots of den-building resources: palettes, boxes, tyres, blocks, plastic sheets and the like.

The children enjoy linking the pop-up tents together with three plastic tunnels and moving from one to the other. Dolls, tea sets, baskets and bowls are often taken into the tents for role play, and adults invited in too.

'They like to be in a space that's at their scale,' says nursery manager Helen Kite. 'It makes the children feel safe, it's cosy for them and their friends and they can invite the adults into their miniature environment.

'We also do a lot of den-building as there are many opportunities for learning,' she says, citing as just some examples problem-solving, designing, measuring, predicting, spatial awareness and teamwork.

'Sometimes, the den does not work out the way they planned, but they learn from that as well.'


- Willowpool Designs specialises in working with groups to create willow structures.

- Willows Nursery online shop.

- WillowBank mail-order catalogue. tel: 01594 861782

- 'How to build a living willow dome play house for under £40'.

- 'Children's dens' by Maria Kylin (CYE vol 13).

- 'The nesting instinct' by Josie Barnard.

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